Don't look back in Angkor

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, November 28, 2011

We are greeted from our boat by an enthusiastically waved sign welcoming us, and held by one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, Tommy, who becomes 'our' tuk-tuk driver for the week. He has been sent by our guest house, and the drivers are always very keen to meet and welcome you as this is their best chance of securing work, rather than having to shout after people passing on the street. After a bumpy ride that involves Tommy frequently turning round to check we haven't bounced right out of the back, we arrive at our lovely welcoming guest house. Michael starts to feel a bit ill and has to have a bit of a lie down (don't worry Grandma, he was fine in the end), so for practically the first time this holiday, Amy is in charge!!! After firm instructions, and despite suffering some middle class angst at being rich enough to pay 2 people's wages for a day, she manages to book a tour guide, as well as promising Tommy, that yes, indeed, our business is his for the next day.

She returns to find Michael throwing up - "if only we had some medicine," he mumbles... forgetting how he'd ignored Amy's protests of 'we won't get ill!' and insisted on bringing some with us. We cross our fingers that he'll be feeling better in the morning when we'll be exploring the Temples of Angkor!

With Michael still not feeling great the next day, we head off with Tommy, and our very serious guide Khoum, to see the largest religious building in the world. Half an hour later we're back again, to pick up the camera. Whoops! Khoum tells us of a girl in the market he likes who has told him this morning that if he wants to marry her, her dowry is $5000 (the salary of a teacher is $50 a month). Khoum is the son of a farmer, so has nothing like this amount of money. Massively confused, Amy thinks some random girl is touting herself out, and Michael has to explain, that no, in fact, this is Khoum's potential girlfriend who he has been seeing for a couple of years (it can be quite hard to hear on a tuk-tuk).

The town of Siem Reap lies very close to the hundreds of temples (296 to be precise) that were built hundreds of years ago (12thC to about 16thC) by Khmer (Cambodian) Kings in homage to various gods & religions. A fair few of the temples are Buddhist, then later on as the Kings changed to Hinduism, the new temples were built to worship Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, and instead of destroying the Buddhist temples most of them were just tweaked a little bit to change them into glorifying Hindu Gods instead. Buddha can look a lot like Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva if you close your eyes a little bit and tilt your head... or if you just chip out the bit of carving that had Buddha in it and leave it blank.

There is frustratingly little information available as to HOW these amazing temples were built. What we can gather, is that over 1,000,000 people would have been involved in building them at any one time! Each family in the Khmer kingdom would have been expected to send at least one member of their family, and would also have had to provide food for them while they worked on the temple. It was considered a huge honour to be working on something to the glory of their God, and would make their path to heaven/enlightenment that little bit more certain. How they lived, how they learned their amazing skills there is no information on, only the astonishing fact of their achievements - which of course are attributed to the King that instructed them to build them.

The first temple we see is The Bayon which turns out to be our favourite. It is covered in bas-relief carvings celebrating the victories of the King Jayavarman VII, with elephants and servants galore, as well as defeated Cham armies and victorious Cambodian ones. They also cover the huge scope of every day life for a Khmer of that period, with scenes of women cooking, people at the market bartering for goods, and with funny bits like a turtle a woman is carrying biting the man in front of her on the bum. We head upstairs, and the upper layer of the temple is a mass of towers with glowing seraphic faces - only 54 remain from well over 200, but the scale of them and their beaming calm are absolutely beautiful.

The next temple, Baphuon, is more ruined, but has the addition of a huge 60 metre long stone sleeping Buddha figure added to the back of it as an improvement by a later King. Michael takes a turn for the worse at this point, and now has as a claim to fame that he has yakked all over outside one of the seven wonders of the world.

Next stop is Tomb Raider Temple! This temple seems to be both held up and crushed by the giant trees popping out of it at all angles, with their roots dwarfing the ancient corridors, and causing collapses - but also now keeping some of the stones together.

We head for lunch and Michael takes a turn for the worse, with both Tommy and Khoum being really concerned for him; Tommy offering to take him to a chemist where he has taken other people who have subsequently recovered apparently, and Khoum rubbing his back - Amy thinks this is a bit beyond the call of duty for a guide, so takes over that particular task. He starts to feel better, so we head to the most famous temple of all - Angkor Wat! Although we're meant to walk into the grounds, a bit of sweet talking to the guards from the ever-charming Tommy has him driving us in the back entrance to a completely deserted temple. This is the same charm that means he doesn't wear his motorcycle helmet 95% of the time, just waves and grins at the police check points as he tells us 'he's my friend' and chuckles to himself.

With Michael recovered a little bit more, we both enjoy Angkor Wat, which is gigantic, and again, covered in carvings depicting mythological scenes, such as The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. It's a very long and complicated story, and most of it has to be re-explained to Amy by Michael after Khoum has explained it to both of us (much like any cinema experience).

The views from the temple are stunning, and apparently it has been constructed to be like a miniature version of the universe, with moats and lakes representing the oceans, and various towers representing mountain ranges.

Knackered, we are dropped back into town, at the shop of Khoum's girlfriend in the market so we can get some allegedly specially discount goods. Charmingly, he gets in a guddle over his words, formally thanking us outside her shop, and we big him up as much as possible. After being overcharged for some (admittedly very nice) trousers, Amy is of the opinion that his girlfriend should pay her own dowry.

The next day is a bit more chilled so Michael can recover, with a bit of looking into nice shops, and a trip to the local museum. Amy tries on a very nice dress in the market ('silk' claims the shopkeeper, and 'made in Cambodia' - it is definitely NOT silk, and presumably has been made in Thailand!) - and our bartering skills are coming on. Amy asks Michael if he likes the dress and he is very non-committal, prompting the shopkeeper to knock a few dollars off - what team work - Amy looks amazing of course ;-). The Cambodian economy has definitely been boosted while we've been in Siem Reap!

The next day, we are raring to go, and head off with Tommy to some of the more distant temples. First port of call is the Cambodia Landmine Museum, which contains thousands of mines which have been deactivated by one man, Aki Ra - who used to set them when he was in the Khmer Rouge, and later in the Vietnamese Army. There are thousands and thousands of landmines that still remain all over Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. We have been surprised at the number of victims we have seen in Cambodia, as we have seen very few so far on our trip. In Vietnam, we reflect, they are perhaps given employment in cooperatives, and in Laos, most likely they did not survive the initial blast, as the country has no healthcare system whatsoever. The museum uses its proceeds to support children who have been disabled by mines and whose families are too poor to look after them, ensuring they have enough food and are able to go to school.

Shortly after leaving, we return to pick up Tommy's phone, which has dropped out of his pocket as he enjoyed the driver's facilities at the museum - some shady hammocks. It's a long way to the temples we are going to, and Tommy obviously doesn't know the police so well, with the helmet having to go on a couple of times. The tuk-tuk doesn't seem to be going along too quickly either as we are overtaken by numerous others, but we reflect it's probably a good thing as it must mean we have chosen a driver who could do with our cash to get a new motorbike. Also, his doesn't have a speedometer anyway, just a gaping hole between the handlebars, and he tells us he spent the whole day yesterday fixing his motorbike. Oh dear! Next thing we know, Tommy is glancing at the tuk-tuk repeatedly, and it turns out it has a flat tire. There is a mechanics right across the road (there's a tire hung outside the little shack on a nearby tree denoting this) so we jump out and it pulls in there. Unfortunately, the mechanic isn't home, but his three children, a 9 year old boy, and his 7 & 4 year old sisters are only too happy to help, the boy dashing away to get his dad, and the girl picking out the right equipment for Tommy. We test out our entertainment skills - everything Michael does is hysterically funny to the 4 year old, and we eventually produce some little brightly coloured bamboo decorations that Michael had bought that morning. They look absolutely delighted, like Christmas has come early, and its hard not to notice the extreme poverty of the little wooden house that must be their home, and that this is probably one of the few completely useless items their family will have!

With the tire fixed, Tommy confidently sets out again, telling us we have loads of time! We reach Kbal Spean and settle down to some lunch - despite having a wife and two kids, Tommy is clearly universally popular, with the women behind the food stalls laughing at his every word, and falling all over themselves to give him their best meal. We head into the forest towards the temple, Tommy settles back into his hammock...

After an hour or so's walk, we come across the riverbed filled with carvings that makes up this particular temple. The Valley of 1000 Lingas (which is the symbol for the Hindu God Shiva) also contains carvings of animal motifs like cows and frogs, as well as more carvings of Vishnu and Brahma (we are getting quite knowledgeable on these 3 Gods now!). Amazingly, despite being there since the 11th Century, it hasn't eroded. Also, it contains a very nice waterfall that you're allowed in - we are bathed in the holy water and feel a lot better for it!

Back to the tuk tuk, and we sit back and enjoy the gorgeous Cambodian countryside unrolling before us - we hit another temple, then head to Pre Rup temple to catch the sunrise. Fantastic!

We head into town and spot Nico & Rose again, as well as Fred who was also on the Gibbon Experience with us. It's Nico & Rose's last night before heading back to New Caledonia, and it becomes clear that there is a lot of shopping that Rose needs to do. Amy & Rose hit the night market, and Michael, Nico & Fred make the most of the 50p a pint draft beer on Pub Street.

The next morning, it's up early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. In case you thought being a tuk-tuk driver was easy, this should confirm that it isn't. After dropping us home at about 6.30pm last night, Tommy still has another hour to drive to get home. Then, in order to pick us up for sunrise, he has to leave his house at 3.45am. He doesn't wear sunglasses, a hat, suntan lotion, a scarf to stop the dust creeping in everywhere, he doesn't have gloves for the cold in the early morning, and the bone shaking he has to endure from the motorbike is not something to envy - it might be ok while he's still a young man at the age of 30, but it's a hard road ahead of him. He works hard for his money - as soon as our heads peep out of a temple he's straight onto the motorbike and has the tuk tuk ready and waiting, he knows all the roads, all the shortcuts and speaks very good English. He tells us he grew up on a farm, and his Papa died when he was only 19 after being forced to sell his farm, his cows and getting in debt to the government, spending thousands of pounds on medicine that didn't cure him. Since then, Tommy has worked on a food stall outside a temple in order to learn English, and eventually managed to save enough to buy his "5-star tuk tuk." He is so excited for his son to go to school next year and learn as much as possible, so that he won't have to follow in his father's footsteps. And it has to be said, that despite all this, Tommy will be earning more than most Cambodians, which is rather frightening for everyone else.

So, back to the sunrise. Surrounded by ponds, the temple is an absolute storm of midges, so stumbling around in the pre-dawn we cover our faces in our scarves and follow the instructions of a girl calling herself Lady Gaga who seems to know exactly where we should stand - and also wants us to buy a coffee from her (she hasn't met Amy before clearly).

The sky changes beautifully over the temple, but it's hard to enjoy the real spirituality of the moment as we are distracted by laughing (discreetly) at the people who elbow their way through to the front to get the best position for a picture, arrive too late and whine they can't see (there is NO sympathy after our own 4.25am rising!), or the semi pro photographer who shouts at a woman who accidentally lost her balance and grabbed his camera tripod so she doesn't fall over, thus ruining one of the 700 photos he's taking. How very dare she!

The rest of the day, we follow the 'Grand Tour,' visiting loads of truly stunning temples. If you have the chance, go and see them, they really are mind blowing! The day, of course, wouldn't be complete without some more fun from Tommy, and guess what, he gets another puncture!! We hop out, getting used to the drill by now, and set off in the direction of the closest temple as he drives off to find a garage - within minutes he returns, he's borrowed his friends tuk-tuk so he can save us the 10 minute walk in the heat - what a sweetie! We can't help but notice it's a tad faster than his own though!

Our stay in Cambodia is coming to an end; the next morning Tommy drives us to the airport, and formally requests that when we come back, we'll make sure we book him, and also, can all our friends book him too - so there you go folks, when you go to see one of the wonders of the world, make sure you ask for Tommy.

Much love,

Amy & Michael xxx
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Mum & Dad on

Excellent blog clearly a great place to visit and if we follow in your foot steps then we will be looking out for Tommy 'the best Tuk Tuk driver' in Cambodia'.

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